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On June 9, 1914, a raging fire engulfed the Hotel Wawonda in Liberty, N.Y., — a regal exercise in Victorian architecture, with its pitched roofs, gabled dormers and sweeping 650 feet of porch — turning one of the Catskills’ then-greatest vacation destinations into ashes. The dramatic destruction of the Wawonda marked a critical point in the region’s history, foreshadowing the decline of what historians call the Silver Age and setting the stage for the rise of the Borscht Belt.
Built in 1891, the Wawonda was the premier Catskills hotel during an early period of rapid growth and prosperity in which the picturesque setting brought the railways, the railways attracted the hotels and the hotels lured the tourists. In the decades following the Civil War, railroads stormed through upstate New York, making it easier than ever before for New Yorkers to escape the city. Hundreds of hotels popped up around railway stations, including the Flagler House, in Fallsburg, and Ye Lancashire Inn, in Liberty. These establishments were mostly owned and visited by gentiles and open only in the summers. Up until 1899, when Jewish resort owner John Gerson started advertising a small boardinghouse in Rock Hill, there was no mention whatsoever of Jewish hotels or tourists.
The tourism industry that boomed during the 1890s and 1910s began to falter, due in part to the area’s growing reputation as a tuberculosis refuge. Still, the raw materials were in place for what would soon become the Jewish Catskills. The very same year as the Wawonda’s sudden, violent collapse, a family struggling to make it on the Lower East Side of Manhattan bought a modest farm in the heart of the Catskill Mountains and hosted nine guests for $81. Their name was Grossinger.
When Selig Grossinger left Austria in 1897 for New York City, he joined throngs of poor, struggling Jewish immigrants chasing better lives at the start of the 20th century. Selig worked as a coat presser on the Lower East Side. Life was hard, yet a decidedly Jewish culture was thriving. Anyone arriving in New York for the first time encountered not a foreign land but a familiar landscape, reassuring in its sights, sounds and smells. That world expanded upstate in the 1920s.
Like many families seeking new business prospects and an affordable refuge from the city’s harsh work environments and anti-Semitic climate, the Grossingers bought a small farmhouse called the Longbrook in Ferndale, in the heart of the Catskills, and started hosting visitors. Grossinger’s wife, Malke Grossinger, ran the kitchen, serving up delicious kosher meals, and his daughter, Jennie Grossinger, thrived as the hostess. By 1919, they had sold the Longbrook and bought a sizeable portion of the nearby Nichols Estate.
Jennie Grossinger’s business savvy and signature warmth made her the right hotelier at exactly the right moment. Under her watchful eye, Grossinger’s expanded dramatically. Tennis courts, a riding path, a children’s camp and daily activities were added in the 1920s.
During the 1920s and ’30s, small and medium-sized hotels prospered alongside goliaths like Grossinger’s and the Flagler. With a vibrant Jewish culture, a relaxed atmosphere and a celebrity clientele, the region offered a place for upwardly mobile American Jewish immigrants to be just that: American and Jewish.
“This was their mecca, their paradise,” Conway said.